It is always a pleasure for me to host reviews by Antonio Díaz, even more when he analyses a book as interesting as Yoon Ha Lee's debut novel: Ninefox Gambit. Hope you enjoy the review!
Review Soundtrack: Antonio suggests reading this review while listening to Mad World, by Gary Jules (Spotify, YouTube).
Ninefox Gambit is Yoon Ha Lee's first novel, although he has written quite a number of short stories. Among his production, a highlight is Conservation of Shadows, a short story collection reviewed in this very site by Odo, and whose positive opinion encouraged me to give this book a go.
This debut novel tells the story of the Fortress of Scattered Needles siege. This Fortress in one of the most important in the hexarchate. When the story starts, the fortress has been taken by a heretic group, no one knows exactly how, and Kel Cheris is commanded to get it back. The hexarchate lets Shuos Jedao, commander and military genius, join her as a secret weapon. Jedao has never lost a battle; however, he's been in prison for 300 years in account of him having totally killed two armies in the last battle he participated in: the enemy's and his.
Ninefox Gambit has a hard and intricate beginning. Yoon Ha Lee throws the reader into the middle of a battle without further ado and sinks them in a sea of technical terms and unknown mechanics. However, after a somewhat confusing first chapter (which required an extra careful second read), the intricacy level relaxes and you discover that you got more than it seemed at first.
The hexarchate is a society formed by six factions (Kel, Andan, Rahal, Shuos, Nirai and Vidona) which have different roles (for example the army is formed by Kel) and together rule a huge empire.What stands out the most is the “calendar system”, and that it looks like is a key piece to interpret technology use and its effects. A weapon designed to work under a specific calendar may not work under another (or it may work in unexpected, devastating ways). What is more important, it seems that a calendar only takes hold in a zone if the people living there have a particular set of beliefs. A democracy cannot share all variables (and therefore technology) with a calendar that works in a dictatorship, and so on.
This worldbuilding is quite inspired, mainly thanks to this exotic way of interpreting technology. Because the government needs the people to strongly believe in the High Calendar as the only valid option (or spaceships won't fly and cannons may shoot in unexpected directions), Yoon Ha Lee builds in the hexarchate a religious extremist empire. Indoctrination, reeducation, mental programming and other dystopian ideas are pointed out as possible weapons in the hexarchate arsenal. Weapons that are needed, it seems, to warrant the life and society as we know them. Furthermore, the novel portrays the use of “formations”: a disposition of people (generally soldiers in a battlefield) that, when they adjust their positions to a particular setting they release extraordinary effects (like making an exotic technology work or producing alterations in mind and body). In truth, despite its futuristic setting, one may think that Ninefox Gambit has a magical system very much like the ones in an epic fantasy. Nevertheless, Clarke already warned us in his 3rd Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology in indistinguishable from magic”. It is my belief that Yoon Ha Lee wants the reader to make their own assumptions about the real workings of the system.
Talking about characters, the main pair, Cheris and Jedao, form a very powerful combination. Kel Cheris is not a young and naive cadet but her honesty and loyalty make the cynicism and weariness of Jedao stand out with some intelligent repartee. Yoon Ha Lee uses the contrast between them to explain how the society has turn out more and more extremist over time. However, no other character is worth mentioning (with the possible exception of Vahenz, and just because he provides information that leads to a deeper understanding of the worldbuilding). Nirai Kujen is also a promising character that sadly only has a couple of very brief scenes.
The book portrays a profound anti-militarism stance. Yoon Ha Lee denounces war's horrors by pointing out how much lives are lost in an armed conflict. Soldiers in the Ninefox Gambit universe are just numbers and they can be sacrificed if the commander centre thinks it is mathematically worthy. However, I think the writer didn't manage to make the most of it. Not only because the average reader already knows that war is horrible, but because a chapter with an appalling human loss count is followed by another with a letter describing some pastry or sweet's quality in a shop or a scene with a really introspective talk about a totally different topic.
Therefore, the main problem I found in the book is its pace. Really slow and pensive scenes mixed up with siege maneuvers that broke the rhythm and pulled me out. It's not that both things aren't interesting, is that the structure and scene positioning didn't work for me. Maybe the book would have benefited from a reorganization or a solid extra point of view. I'd like to go on a limb to point out that maybe the lack of experience of the author in the long format (and not in writing) is what damages Ninefox Gambit in this regard.
Although Yoon Ha Lee is prone to write with some unusual words – obdurately, unstinting, nonplused, cloying and rakish, among others, stood out to me (a non-English native, by the way) – the truth is that his style is generally direct albeit a bit confusing in some action scenes (again that can be because of the calendar system).
The book left me a lukewarm feeling in some moments, but globally I admit that I liked it (although not loved it). Ninefox Gambit has a very interesting ending that, even solving all the major plot points, leaves enough minor stuff wide open in order to foresee a second part. This likely new book will, hopefully, include the bunch of action and shocking revelations that are hinted in this one. And are those revelations (and the hope of a better comprehension of the worldbuilding) what will draw me to it. Meanwhile, I may check some of those short stories to see how Yoon Ha Lee works in that format.